Sunday, June 30, 2013

La Condo Engloutie

Donald Fagen: Sunken Condos
Reprise Records (2012)


I occasionally find myself sucked into the vortex of musical genres. I suppose it's something to do with collecting, or with immersion in any subject matter that can be dissected. Maybe it happens to wine people or beetle enthusiasts or film buffs or avid readers. Music is like language, the assemblage of discreet, (presumably) abstract sounds into a cohesive whole that gets assigned some agreed-upon meaning. But musical "meaning" is an elusive thing. Music involves such a degree of abstraction--indeed, music without lyrics is almost completely abstract--that it's difficult to talk about how or why a thing "works" musically. I haven't studied music theory, though my sense is that compositional "rules" are more a collection of accepted things, looked at and assigned over-the-shoulder, as it were, than actual constrictions. Better maybe talk about conventions than rules. As in many fields, a genius can write her or his own rules, and the conventions shift to accommodate; it's this stretching and breaking and subsequent rewriting of the rules that constitutes progress. Or at least movement (since without meaning there can be no "progress" per se).

When I insert a CD into this computer to add it to my iTunes library, the program automatically queries the CD Database (CDDB) and downloads the metadata--song titles, album name, artist and composer, etc. And genre. This data--virtually everything except song title and artist and album name--is almost always wrong, subtly or wildly, which drives me crazy and causes me to have endless hours of editing waiting for my down time. But that's another post. Probably almost half of my music collection is organ music, and like any music lover I am naturally attuned to the the myriad subgenres of my areas of interest. But the CDDB, not surprisingly, never EVER gets this stuff right.

Anyway. I think about this as I listen to Donald Fagen's latest solo album (from late 2012), Sunken Condos. Fagen is, of course, one of the two brains behind Steely Dan. After a bunch of albums in the '70s and '80s, SD disappeared from the scene for about 15 years, and then released a couple albums in the 2000s that picked up right where they left off. And in the interim Donald Fagen produced a couple solo albums in very much the same sonic vein.

I was going to put in a phrase there like "Steely Dan, the jazz-rock fusion group from the '70s up to the present day noted for their sophistication" but here I am faced with this genre problem. What the hell do you call them? Fusion? Well, not in the Weather Report or Return to Forever vein. They're certainly popular, but Pop doesn't work, and they're not Rock and Roll in the Rolling Stones mold. Jazz is the wrong term, as--if we are going to honor the conventions--the term implies improvisation; there is very little improvisation involved on a SD or Donald Fagen record. In fact, it's hard to imagine a more tightly-controlled music than this. To whatever extent a genre requires spontaneity, SD should not be in that genre. There ARE solos, of course, but these are closely circumscribed. The Dan's live shows are more free-flowing, but even then musicians are kept on a short leash. And their particularity in the studio is the stuff of legend. It's a sonic world that would pretty quickly devolve into something else if others were allowed to run too freely. But not to worry, folks not being allowed to wander unsupervised in Donald Fagen's world does not mean stagnation or boredom or lack of interest. There's a sameness to all this, yes, but because the substance is so rare we cannot get too much of it. (And it's a testament to something that it all stands up so well to repeated listenings--Donald Fagen's solo tracks are among the most revisited in my library.)

I've been on a quest, for years, really, to find more music in or near the genre of Steely Dan. And I've consistently failed in that quest. I grew up in the '70s and '80s, so that particular tonal and instrumental and milieu rather set my ear and is reflected in my sonic sense of home (at least for this kind of popular music): Roland Orzabal (another particular favorite), Supertramp, Doobie Brothers, Eagles, Bee Gees, ELO, Fleetwood Mac, Peter Gabriel, The Police, Steve Winwood. And much of the newer stuff I've come to love does not deviate so far from this sonic world, even if the genre business might make categorizing a bit sticky: Mark Knopfler, John Mayer, KT Tunstall, Keane, Coldplay.

But none of these artists is doing what Steely Dan does, especially in the Dan's final four or five albums (since, say, The Royal Scam), when the substance I think of as "Steely Dan" was firmly set. Whatever we call it, Donald Fagen's solo albums belong very much in the same genre bin as Steely Dan's work. This is not surprising, of course, and it shows Fagen's huge influence in SD's sound and aesthetic. So this makes a new Donald Fagen album almost impossibly precious, because there's only a handful of albums of this genre and we're unlikely to see much (or any?) more.

If we can't define the aesthetic by assigning a genre, how else might we summarize it? What, exactly, makes up their unique sound? Well, I don't have much more success coming at it from this angle. It's partly a harmonic thing--they employ a really sophisticated harmonic palette, one you're much more likely to find in jazz than in anything pop-related. Especially in SD's last few albums and in Fagen's solo work, there's nary a normal chord progression to be found. Listen to "Maxine" from Fagen's first solo album, 1982's The Nightfly, with its fantastic storytelling piano intro; or "The Night Belongs to Mona" from 2006's Morph the Cat (among many other viable candidates). Utterly engaging and perfectly musically logical, even if you can't figure out why it should be so (which is exactly what I thought / felt when I first listened to Debussy's Preludes). The fact that you won't hear this anywhere else convinces me that nobody else *could* write it.

There's also a craftsmanship element to this music, an obsessive precision about every single thing one hears. There's never a note out of place, and everything is exquisitely recorded with meticulous attention (they won a production Grammy for Gaucho in 1980, I think, and they've stayed with this close-miked, everything-upfront sound that's almost like having the music piped directly into your brain). I'm quite aware that for many people there's no value in never hitting a wrong note nor in extraordinary precision. Music isn't about this to them; instead it's supposed to be an emotional flood from the heart. I respect this, and perhaps my affection for SD's / Fagen's precision is more reflective of my personal quirks. I've always preferred recorded music to live, as the studio gives a musician a chance to think out their music and get it right. Again, this is surely not everyone's priority. But it's an inescapable element of this specific sub-genre. Even 30-year-old albums continue to yield surprises and reward careful listening. And the more careful listening I do, the more I yearn to explore other players in the same sonic neighborhood--and the more I'm struck by how there isn't anybody else in this neighborhood.

Their lyrics are often ironic, oblique, sometimes sardonic, and they frequently tell a little story. It's very urban world, one of courtship and drugs. Again, they kind of write their own genre.

Fagen says his first three solo albums (The Nightfly, 1982; Kamakiriad, 1993; Morph the Cat, 2006) were conceived as a trilogy, with shared themes. That little chapter wrapped up with Morph the Cat, he says, and Sunken Condos stands on its own. But (not to dispute the artist himself) I don't know that the listener finds any meaningful connective tissue between those three albums. The Nightfly looks backward while Kamakiriad looks into the future. But Morph the Cat? Pretty much present day, like Sunken Condos. In any case it's all very much the same sonic world (I'll often play his albums jumbled together, tracks appearing alphabetically rather than by album, and there's little to mark songs stylistically by album or age. It's all of a piece). Fagen writes by telling stories, by introducing us to characters and places and events.

Thematically, Sunken Condos's songs visit familiar territory. There are songs about love in the autumn years (always with a much younger woman, a topic first explored in 1980 with Hey Nineteen)--Slinky Thing, The New Breed, Planet d'Rhonda; about city life--Miss Marlene, Out of the Ghetto (a cover of an Issac Hayes tune); and a couple retro-fantasies--The Good Stuff, Memorabilia. And there's the delicious Weather In My Head, ranked #21 on Rolling Stone's 50 Best Songs of the Year.

The CD relies on the production efforts of multi-instrumentalist Michael Leonhart, though the sound is pure Fagen. This interview with Fagen and Leonhart gives some indication of how an album like this is assembled, and I'm interested in how they appear to "audition" a bunch of people, people they've kind of let into their sonic world to play, and they select those who "get it"and let the others go. What a nerve-wracking thing for a musician! It's like Woody Allen auditioning the guy who gets to try to play him in Allen's next film: who can be Allen as well as (or perhaps better than) Woody Allen?

Lastly, a few specifics. Inevitably, some songs grow on one with repeated listenings. After the home run of Weather In My Head, I'm particularly taken with Miss Marlene, a catchy and slick tune that wraps around a haunting story. And--in a very Steely Dan detail--the haunting bit is two lines buried in the middle of the song and rather oblique at that. The song sounds like one thing but is really something else. Lovely. Also Planet d'Rhonda and Good Stuff. Since the tunes don't necessarily come right to mind--at least not without repeated exposure--it's something in the vibe that tickles the brain and makes me crave to hear them again and again.

I was surprised that horn player Leonhart was actually the drummer for the album (after the magnificent Keith Carlock on the last couple albums). He lays down an excellent and almost drum-machine-basic groove here. But the drummer in me wants to nitpick just a little: the kit sounds as if played with great precision and a feather-touch. I can't help wishing for a bit more energy or force. That part of it sounds, well, geriatric.

That bit of utter trivia is about the only criticism I can find. The rest of it is pure gold, every bit of it.

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